on 25 March 2013
This is a book worth reading, if only because it allows us to see the history of imperialism as experienced by its victims.
Mishra is interested in analysing the intellectual response to Western dominance in the various forms it took from Japan to Egypt. In doing so he gives historical depth to modern day phenomena such as the Taliban, the Iranian revolution, Ataturk, the transformations of Chinese Communism etc. He sometimes understates the complexity of the situation inside the subjugated countries (e.g. I found him weak on the Ottoman Empire, which the Arabs did not see as an Islamic state but as alien rule, just as the people of the Balkans did.) Having reached a triumphalist conclusion about the "revenge of the East", however, he turns the tables on Asia, by pointing out that its liberation was achieved mostly by adopting Western ideas, and that Asia has so far failed to generate an alternative economic and social model - which is absolutely necessary in a world of finite resources.
I have rather mixed feelings about this book. So first the plus points. The opening chapter gives an excellent, clear account of the actions of imperialists in China, India, Egypt, Iran and elsewhere, and sets the scene superbly for a good understanding of the why people in the East would view the West with suspicion and even hatred. The scholarship is excellent; Mishra is an intellectual, and gives interesting accounts of the the evolving philosophies of a range of key anti imperialist thinkers including Ghandi, Al-Afghani and Tagore in India and elsewhere, as well as Liang Qichao and Mao in China. The book is for the most part easy to read, and gives a strong sense of the alienation and indeed fury felt by many in the developing world up to the present day.
However, for me there were a number of negative points too. Although easy to read, this book has no overarching theme other than a general loathing of the West - Britain, France and the United States in particular. No action taken by the West is given any credit whatever, whereas the actions of Eastern rulers even when they have caused great suffering are brushed over as being part of the development in those countries. The only exception to this is for pro Western Asian leaders - for the author they were all despots, and their motivations were always about enriching a few, not the many. However, for the author Japanese imperialism in the 1930s brought freedom and self determination in its wake, and the Taliban brought order to Afghanistan. Never mind the horrors, and the denial of basic human rights perpetrated by those regimes. Mao comes in for criticism for his 'blunders' but praise for his anti imperialism. Pity the 'blunders' cost the lives of millions.
The scholarship is good, though highly selective.
It is hard to see what the author would wish for other than, it appears, a rejection of modernity and an embrace of rural, pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment life and values. Certainly he appears to loathe the West, and this shines through repeatedly in the denunciations - sometimes in the words of others - of the values of secularism, democracy and liberalism. Personally, those are the values I cherish.
Always good to know what others are thinking though.
on 19 November 2012
The main body of the book consists of long chapters on three key thinkers Mishra picks out as indicative and influential: Jamal Al-Din Al Afghani in the Arab World, Liang Qichao in East Asia, and Rabindranath Tagore in India. He pulls out parallels and differences in their thought, puts them into context of the times they lived in, and the thinkers they engaged with, and generally gives a really good concise account (it seemed to me) of their thoughts on how Asia could resist Western Imperialism, and how their views emerged and then, in each case, evolved over time. It's quite scholarly but the blend of history, selective quotation, and explanation keeps it very readable for the general reader.
In the later chapters, he discusses what happened in Asia's relationship with the West in the 20th Century, and shows how these thinkers influenced things, where they were prophetic, and how new ideas of Asian national and ethnic identity developed. This is the really interesting part. It probably needs a book like this to understand topics which can often seems a bit impenetrable to Westerners, like the intellectual background to Mao's version of Chinese Communism, and how the Communist Party in China has changed over time to embrace Confucian beliefs. It's also really informative on the context of Indian independence which can sometimes be lost in the media's preoccupation with Gandhi as the dominant protagonist. I'm not really a very informed reader in this area and I certainly felt I had a much better grasp of these issues after reading this book, which isn't bad for a 310 page text!
Where I was slightly disappointed was that it felt as though the book, despite hinting throughout, only tackles the really big questions towards the end, rather than really engaging with them earlier and discussing in more depth. The two big questions for me were as follows. Can Asia realistically 'opt out', as many of these thinkers wanted to, of the global capitalist system that many see as inherently benefiting the West at Asia's expense? Also, since so many of the models of government suggested involve either elevating religion to a more dominant role in national life or reverting to older, and often dictatorial, models of government, are the vast majority of Asians actually better off under 'Asian' regimes (which include places like Afghanistan under the Taliban and modern Iran) than they would be embracing Western models of life and government? Mishra identifies these challenges, but (perhaps forgivably) doesn't really try to crack either one.
Saying that, I really enjoyed the book, it left me much better informed. Sometimes leaving the reader with some big questions in their mind isn't a bad thing, but I'd love to have read more of the author's thoughts about the future. After all, this is a history, so perhaps that's for another book...
on 27 October 2012
A fascinating chronicle of the "pan-Asian" struggle against "European" and "white" domination. Unfortunately, in some ways it is a mirror of some moderately crass Eurocentric writings. To dismiss the Greek claim to western Anatolia (a centre of Greek population and culture for nearly three millennia) as "spurious" suggests a strange and limited view of Asian-ness, and the extensive mention of Islam barely hints at its historic perception - from other Asian angles - as a prepotent threat, a conqueror, massacrer, and enslaver in immense previously-Christian, Zoroastrian, and Hindu lands in Asia until European power briefly restrained it. The Japanese experience is perhaps the only area where sufficient context on inter-Asian struggle is given.
I enjoyed this book and found its comprehensive and valid view of one angle of one period of human struggle very rewarding. As promised, it gives a view of the collective experience and subjectivities of Asian peoples; it has enriched my mental model of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it would have benefited from brief outlines of several other subjective views, vital elements of context for its main theme.
on 21 December 2015
If only he had written two books. The first could have featured interesting historical analysis about fascinating characters that I hardly know anything about,
The second book featuring ranting unsupported polemic better suited to social media or click bait newspaper articles I could have just ignored.
He is a good writer and I think he is right that, here in the west we do often have a very hypocritical view of Empire. We do tend to ignore all the atrocities and greed and pretend that our motives were a lot more pure that they really were. There are many great non-western thinkers that have been largely ignored and it is fascinating to hear about them.
Now for the bad and there is an awful lot of it. A few mild criticism's I might have is that he never makes a convincing case for treating Asia as one monolithic block. Other than geography what really links China and Turkey? He generally treats Russia ( and the Soviet Union) as being western. He massively generalises about Europe and sees every country and every person as being basically being the same. There is no real recognition of the mass of the population being exploited and having very little power. There may have been lot less of a racial component but European people did continually kill each other.
A bigger issue I have with this is that he seems to think of ideas being exclusively western. Just because a country was the first to do it does that mean it exclusively belongs to it? The ancient Greeks who may have been the first to practice democracy were very different from modern European countries. Should we then have rejected it as alien?
Many European thinkers have called for a return to traditional values and have hated modernity. Again he underplays this.
My biggest criticism is just how shallow this book gets. He just breezes through a massive amount of history. Asian countries committing atrocities against each other? The mass slaughter of Armenian's? Barely gets a mention. His predictions about democracy in the middle east have turned out to be not very accurate.
I really don't think much of those books which rant on about brilliant the British Empire was and how much we unselfishly helped other people. This book could have been a great corrective to that but unfortunately it just devolves into something equally worthless.
on 3 March 2013
A very interesting book, with its mix of history of ideas and general history - displays some of the intellectual currents that resulted from the rise and expansion of the British empire. I felt that the part about Rabindrath Tagore was less clear than the parts about al-Afghani and Liang Qichao, but all in all there is quite a lot of stimulating perspectives in this book for someone interested in what one might call "modern intellectual history of the East".
Three civilizations - China, India, the Islamic world - and three intellectuals that represent these civilizations? This book is about imperial expansion and how intellectuals of the conquered territories dealt with it. A good read, well-written and well-researched.
on 21 April 2013
Really interesting review of the history of Asia, the Middle East and the Far East, sometimes it gets a bit ragged but the book explains why the British and the Americans are often viewed with distaste by so many peoples. Sometimes some of the comments are poorly argued but the themes in all the emerging countries are shared and repeat themselves and there seems to be no way to balance the desire for western things and modernity with the need to retain ancient and different values and ways of life. Something always gives. The history is far from finished yet and I watch events with more understanding after reading this book. I have recommended this book to many friends, enjoy it.
on 18 August 2013
A provocative read, with the key contentions amply proven. 19th century colonisation of Asia by Western powers was motivated primarily by trade, extractive industry and territorial control whereas nation building and independence for the colonised peoples was never a real consideration. This gave rise to deep seated resentment evident to this day. Some Asian nations were more resilient than others: Japan modernised internally by making full use of western advances without conceding much more than trading rights, whereas the Ottoman Empire tried the same path but by that time was already a fragmented country deeply in debt to the European countries.
By the end of the First World War Japan was a democratic country more technically advanced than most European nations and had supported France, Britain and the United States in that war. However when they asked to be treated as racial equals at the Versailles treaty negotiations in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson overruled the majority because of strong opposition from Britain and the United States, an inauspicious start to the League of Nations. Asians resented such views deeply, and many were happy to see their European masters humiliated by the Japanese in the inevitable second world war and trace their existence as independent countries to that time.
The book focuses on the evolving views of a few Asian scholars who concluded that their countries should reject Western progress and look to their Islamic, Hindu or Confucian roots for their futures. I was left wondering just how strong the opposition to modernisation really was, particularly as the populations became increasingly urbanised. Similar scholars today are often well removed from reality and political pragmatism. This could explain the abject failure to gain more than retrospective lip service for their ideas, with the possible exception of modern Islamic Iran, where they do appear to have won out and gained the utopian society they desired (the author notes that the Ayatollahs did restore the Shah's police state soon after).
In the conclusions the author dismisses the intrinsic value of material goods to Asian people. Most Asian people I know seem perfectly happy to have disposable income and enough leisure time to pursue and develop their personal interests- traditional religions remain alive but are put in a new context. This seems no different from what we see in Western 'white' countries and the supposed racial differences, a prominent feature of this book, are almost certain an illusion.
Overall the book was an interesting read, provocative, verging on polemic in places but overall reliable and well researched. I can strongly recommend it to a reader who can make the effort to assess the arguments presented.
on 10 August 2012
The debate about the impact of European Imperialism of the last two centuries continues to exercise great fascination at a time of changing perceptions as the East edges towards economic, political even sporting parity with the West.Endeavours to survey the legacy of Imperialism are bound to rouse great passions as the protagonists on both sides of the divide, whether ardent apologists or despondent detractors, succumb alternatively to self righteous triumphalism or moral indignation.New vistas need to be opened by scholars to explore the complexities of this phenomenon, crucially important because of its historic global repercussions in the same way as the birth of Capitalism or the spread of Industrialisation.It is refreshing therefore to have an account which attempts to break down the partitions between the separate mental universes we inhabit, as defined by our cultural allegiances, and introduce different vantage points to help us examine the present in the light of the recent past
The originality of the scholarship lies in bringing together a number of remarkable Asian thinkers from far and disparate cultural traditions namely Islamic,Sinic/Confucian and Hindu and to chart their separate intellectual odyssey as they grappled with the challenges posed by Modernisation and the encroachments of Western hegemony on their societies.The three major peripatetic figures of Afghani, Liang Qichao and Tagore dominate the chronicle because of their pioneering political activism,their extensive influence on future thinkers as well as their fame in the West.However the author casts his net wide by introducing many other intellectual figures, not necessarily minor or peripheral, to broaden the scope of his investigation into the enormous intellectual ferment bubbling throughout Asia and the Middle East during the best part the 20th Century.These thinkers toyed with considerable variety of ideas ranging from Social Darwinism to revolutionary Marxism, from Pan Asianism to Pan Islamism,from rural primitivism to forced Industrialisation.
The text demonstrates the importance of some key historical events,mostly remote from European concerns, on the formation of these intellectual responses.From the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt and the capitulations imposed on Egypt and Turkey,to the Indian mutiny and the Opium wars. From the Russo-Japanese war to the Boxer rebellion, from the Paris Peace conference to Japanese militarism and Decolonisation.The author sketches the three main responses to Western power articulated by some of these thinkers; the conservative conviction of finding appropriate solutions by retreating into an idyllic rural past and being faithful to the religious traditions,views surprisingly shared by the Islamic Salafists and Gandhi;the compromise notion of borrowing a few Western techniques but keeping the indigenous core unchanged in a Nationalist framework and finally the radical secularist solution of imposing a cultural revolution from above and breaking free from the past,a philosophy adopted by the likes of Ataturk and Mao despite their ideological differences.The scheme may be a bit simplified but remains an interesting model.
Despite its generic approach,the occasional uncritical bias and the odd debatable commentary about contemporary events still unfolding,this is an original and relevant work of synthesis in part historical essay and in part intellectual biography which brings considerable insight into the modern origins of the non Western world of Asia and the Middle East.Because of the wealth and range of information it provides,that one would need to glean from a large library of specialist subjects ( see the bibliography),this book should potentially appeal to a wide readership in the West as well as the Asian countries concerned, as long as it is realised that it is mostly a historical survey rather than a work of penetrating intellectual analysis.
on 3 January 2014
I really loved this book. Not a light read in any sense, but it really puts todays issues in context.
What you sow is what you reap. It should be a must read for anyone involved in foreign policy.
Read this and then consider what the Neo Cons are up to. The events it describes may be over 100 years ago,
but we are really feeling their impact now...unfortunately.